Superman (1978)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Superman: The Movie

You’ll believe a man can fly.

Also Known As: Superman: The Movie

Country: USA, UK, Panama, Switzerland & Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 143 minutes | 151 minutes (Expanded Edition) | 188 minutes (TV version)
BBFC: A (1978) | PG (1986)
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 11th December 1978 (New York City)
UK Release: 14th December 1978
Budget: $55 million
Worldwide Gross: $300.2 million

Stars
Christopher Reeve (The Remains of the Day, Village of the Damned)
Margot Kidder (Black Christmas, The Amityville Horror)
Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Unforgiven)
Marlon Brando (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now)

Director
Richard Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon)

Screenwriters
Mario Puzo (The Godfather, Superman II)
David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, Moonwalker)
Leslie Newman (Superman III, Santa Claus: The Movie)
Robert Benton (What’s Up, Doc?, Kramer vs. Kramer)

Story by
Mario Puzo (Earthquake, The Godfather Part II)

Based on
Superman, a DC Comics superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.


The Story
The only survivor of the destruction of his home world, Kal-El is raised on Earth realising he has extraordinary abilities. When he comes of age and comes to understand where he came from, he resolves to use his powers to help mankind — which is handy, because criminal genius Lex Luthor is planning a destructive scheme that only a superman could prevent.

Our Hero
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman! He can fly, he can withstand bullets, he can see what colour underwear Lois Lane is wearing…

Our Villain
Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind and possessor of a suspiciously varied hairstyle, whose latest real estate-based plot is put at risk when Superman emerges.

Best Supporting Character
Super-journalist Lois Lane. She may be a strong-willed highly-capable modern woman, but she still swoons at the sight of a muscly superhero.

Memorable Quote
Superman: “Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?!”

Memorable Scene
As Lois Lane takes off in a helicopter from the roof of the Daily Planet, it snags on a wire, crashing into the rooftop and ending up dangling over the edge. As a crowd gathers below to watch the unfolding tragedy, Lois struggles to climb out, but slips and falls. As she plummets to certain death, in swoops Superman to catch her. Cue: Memorable Quote. And then, with his free arm, he rescues the helicopter too.

Memorable Music
John Williams at the height of his powers, composing another of the most iconic main themes of all time, plus an equally epic score to go with it. What more do you need to say?

Technical Wizardry
The sets are magnificent, particularly the several huge constructions, like Luthor’s underground lair, or the icy Fortress of Solitude. Reportedly, director Richard Donner was disgusted that designer John Barry didn’t get Oscar recognition for his work, especially as one of the actual nominees for Best Art Direction merely duplicated an existing hotel.

Truly Special Effect
You’ll believe a man can fly! Obviously some of the late-’70s special effects have dated 40 years on, but, actually, many of them hold up surprisingly well today.

Letting the Side Down
In case you haven’t seen the film, spoilers. If you have seen it, surely you know what this is: when Superman flies around the Earth to reverse its rotation, thereby turning back time. It’s possibly the most scientifically implausible thing to ever appear in a major motion picture, and I’ve seen Geostorm. What’s most disappointing is how it threatens to ruin a near-perfect film right in its closing minutes. Surely they knew that was stupid even in the ’70s? (I say “nearly perfect” because there’s also Lois’ terrible poem/song when Superman takes her flying. But that’s as nothing compared to the sodding time travel.)

Making of
There’s lots of great making-of trivia about the film, but one I didn’t even notice: for the sake of continuity, they had Christopher Reeve dub all of young Clark Kent’s dialogue — the voice of the actor who played young Clark, Jeff East, is never heard.

Previously on…
As the first superhero, Superman has a long history on screen, starting with the 17 Fleischer Studios and Famous Studios cartoons produced between 1941 and 1943. The first live-action iteration was a 15-part serial in 1948, with a sequel in 1950. The first Superman feature followed in 1951: Superman and the Mole Men, which was designed to promote the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 to 1958. The character returned to animation for The New Adventures of Superman series in 1966, and he was one of the Super Friends from 1973. So it’s no wonder the character was well-established enough that Donner’s film even includes some in-jokes.

Next time…
Christopher Reeve went on to star in three more films over the next nine years, with diminishing results. A 19-year wait ensued until the hero’s next big screen outing, with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns attempting to continue the Reeves series as if III and IV had never existed. It didn’t work. The character was rebooted in 2013’s Man of Steel, with that iteration continuing in Batman v Superman and Justice League, with more expected to follow. Around these there have been several TV series, both live-action (most notably Lois & Clark, aka The New Adventures of Superman, and the long-running Smallville) and animated (including a follow-up to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the imaginatively titled Superman: The Animated Series, and dozens of direct-to-DVD animated movies). There’s a full list of all this stuff here.

Awards
1 Oscar (Special Achievement for Visual Effects)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing, Original Score)
1 BAFTA (Most Promising Newcomer (Christopher Reeve))
4 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), Cinematography, Production Design/Art Direction, Sound)
5 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Actress (Margot Kidder), Music, Special Effects, Production Design)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Christopher Reeve), Supporting Actress (Valerie Perrine), Director, Costumes)
Winner of the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation
2 Grammys (Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture, Best Instrumental Composition (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 Grammy nomination (Best Pop Instrumental Performance (“Prelude and Main Title March”))
1 WGA Award nomination (Comedy Adapted from Another Medium — it is quite funny, but still…)

Verdict

Superman is virtually perfect. Every member of the cast is excellent, though none more so than Christopher Reeve in the dual role of Clark Kent / Superman — he makes them feel like two different people, each equally believable. Richard Donner’s direction is first-rate, keeping our interest through a long storyline that could be slow but in fact never drags. There’s a pure heart here, a childlike sense of wonder and excitement that shines off the screen. Superman’s “boy scout” image could be a barrier in our modern, cynical world, coming across as twee and old-fashioned, but instead the film somehow makes it triumphant and magical. And then the time travel ending is so bloody stupid, it nearly undermines the whole movie. But, when everything else is so great, it’d be churlish to let it get in the way.

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4 thoughts on “Superman (1978)

  1. Superman SUCKS!
    He’s the most useless & stupid (shit) supervillain created.(This needless loser like him is gonna ended up as a villain)
    Superman is scum, dirty moron & gangster asshole.(His brainless fans, actors, etc are weak-minded, sore losers with low IQ)
    All of his comics, cartoons, movies, dramas, etc are all shit, crap, garbage, rubbish & suck-ass.
    He must be removed from this face of this planet.
    Superman & DC Comics (& their fans, forever) SUCKS, [SUCKS x1,998] & SUCKS!

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  2. Ahem. Well, I love these ‘Guide to’ posts of yours when they refer to something as special as Superman: The Movie.

    Its funny, your comments about the time stuff. It never really took me out of the movie. Maybe its because the film was so special that I could forgive it anything. Indeed, I’d actually argue that today it feels even more special. No-one would make such a sweet, Americana good vs evil kind of superhero movie today. I suppose we are more demanding of our superhero movies these days, and God knows there are so many of them that they hardly feel as special as this one did. “You’ll believe a man can fly” crikey just that tagline raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

    I remember Swap Shop on BBC Saturday mornings back then when Superman came out, or really just before, and they showed clips and had guests on- I seem to remember Christopher Reeve was there in the studio taking questions from kids over the phone. They used to show that helicopter sequence a lot back then (just like for Star Wars, tv shows always showed the TIE fighter attack on the Falcon), and it just bedazzled me, it looked so real.

    So anyway. Back to that sending the Earth backwards etc. I always figured it was Supes racing faster than light and travelling back in time, not sending Earth revolving backwards etc. Maybe the movie just visualized it wrong or misleadingly, or maybe I’m just making excuses. I also understood from the voice in the clouds that it was a one-time only kind of deal, that it broke some fundamental law and could only be done once.

    Not hat it really matters. The film is bigger than just that ending. I love Krypton, classical restrained, I love Clark Kent at home, that sweet, Americana feel. I love Metropolis, that modern yet somehow just a little bit off city, which is something films fail at all the time now. Gotham and New York and Metropolis… in the comics they were always comic-book cities, not the realities people lived in. They were… movie cities, to me. Larger than life, richer, bolder, darker, than reality. One thing Tim Burtons Batman did better than any other Batman movie since was creating that strange Gotham that the Batman lived in. It wasn’t goddam Chicago, whatever Nolan would say.

    Anyway, Superman: The Movie is the best superhero movie of all time, for me. Sure there are better effects now but films have lost all that charm and you could never cast a film with such greats these days- there is no great almost mystical name like Marlon Brando to cast anymore. Maybe if De Niro hadn’t made all those crap movies he’d carry that kind of weight, but I digress. If I had to name my top two superhero films, it would be Superman: The Movie and probably Watchmen, and both are at polar opposites of the genre, that possibly says something.

    But Superman is my favorite, and its such a shame Margot Kidder passed away recently. Chris Reeve and her were,magical together, lightning in a bottle. And I guess you could argue we don’t have directors like Richard Donner working in movies anymore either. Nowadays directors are more about the visuals and spectacle than just simply telling a story, and the films may look incredible but we oddly lost some sense of both myth and reality along the way, and the films lost being something special. Superman: The Movie was something very special.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here’s the the thing about the time reversal that I was kinda trying to get across but I’m not sure I did: in isolation, I hate it — it seems so nonsensical, so different from what’s even loosely plausible (very few methods of time travel in fiction ‘make sense’, but they’re usually fundamental to the setup so you let it go, whereas here it’s a bit deus ex machina). But everything else about the film is so magnificent that, in context, I barely care. When that bit came along on my recent viewing I was prepared to feel disappointed, but, while I still disliked it intellectually, I was happy to let it slide. I mean, it is what it is — and it’s a very small part of the whole movie, so why worry about it?

      Also, I like the idea that he’s not literally turning the Earth backwards. See, even that slight change into pseudo-science makes it more palatable to me!

      There was a thread on Twitter the other day between people who get to talk to filmmakers regularly (I think it was mostly journalists and effects guys, that kind of thing) about how disappointing it is how many current filmmakers’ justification for anything is “but it looks cool!” If you ask them about what mood or tone or feeling they were going for, or suggest something that could clarify the story or character or whatever, it comes back to “but what we’ve got looks cool!” You have to hope there are some blockbuster-level directors who know better than that, but they seem to be surprisingly rare.

      re: these Guide To posts, you can kinda tell the format was built for 100 Favourites, because it’s really designed to emphasise a film’s great qualities — hence why it works best for genuinely great films, I guess!

      Like

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